A University of Arkansas at Little Rock history professor has received a unique fellowship at the Boston Athenaeum that is helping him uncover the mystery of how two French colonial islands thwarted the abolition of slavery.
During the French Revolution, France first abolished slavery in 1794, but Napoleon Bonaparte revoked that degree in 1802 and reinstituted slavery across the French colonies. During this tenuous period in history, enslaved people in a majority of the French colonies were set free.
However, two of France’s colonies in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius and Reunion Island, prevented the abolition of slavery without breaking away from France. It’s a fact that has mystified Dr. Nathan Marvin, assistant professor of history at UA Little Rock, for many years.
“One of the most fascinating things about this region is at a moment in the French Revolution when they abolished slavery throughout the French empire, these islands resisted emancipation completely,” Marvin said. “How, precisely, were slave-owning elites on France’s Indian Ocean colonies able to flout the general emancipation decree of their government, effectively maintaining 100,000 people in illegal slavery?”
Marvin believes that some of the answers to this mystery can be found in a 19th century diary now housed in the Boston Athenaeum, more than 9,000 miles from the former French colonies.
Marvin received the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Fellowship, which allows him to use the Boston Athenæum’s holdings relevant to the 18th and 19th centuries. The fellowship comes with a stipend for a four-week residency in Boston as well as a year’s membership to the Boston Athenæum, a private research library.
During his fellowship, Marvin has been able to examine the diary of François Le Forestier, a refugee from Mauritius who worked as a teacher in New England during his time on the lam.
“It is the diary of a civil servant who fled Mauritius after being accused of embezzling tax dollars and wound up in New England, where he knew some prominent merchant families,” Marvin said. “There, he became a French tutor to a young woman, Mary Cobbs, from a wealthy merchant family in Portland, Maine, with ties to the Indian Ocean islands.”
After British forces landed in Mauritius in 1810 after defeating the French in the battle at Cap Malheureux, Le Forestier felt it was safe to return home. During the long voyage, he wrote a diary dedicated to his former pupil.
“In it, he describes a massive conspiracy to oust French government agents who arrived in Mauritius in 1796 to apply the decree emancipating all slaves,” Marvin said. “France sent an expedition including troops and two powerful civil commissioners to implement the new Constitution in the colonies, which stipulates that slavery is illegal. People know they are coming, and there is a conspiracy to oust them and not let them apply emancipation to slaves.”
Le Forestier’s diary describes how the island’s plantation owners sent out a message from the capital city of Port Louis for all the young able men from the countryside to come to Port Louis with their guns.
“The people have three ships outfitted to send the civil commissioners and the soldiers with them packing,” Marvin said. “The morning after the arrival of this party, some of the young men from the countryside pull the commissioners out of bed, and a crowd carries them to the port where they force them on these ships. They locked all the soldiers in the barracks where they were staying. Nobody is killed. It’s a bloodless revolution. The ship just happens to go to the Philippines, which is about as far from France as possible. There is still a lot of mystery surrounding this coup, but the memoir is clear that this was planned from the beginning.”
Mauritius’s Colonial Assembly reported to France that the incident was a spontaneous reaction by the island’s residents, not the planned coup that it really was.
“The commissioners got back to France in 1797,” Marvin said. “In 1799, Napoleon came to power, and there was a whole new government in place by 1799 with the regime change. The 100,000 enslaved people on the islands will not see the abolition of slavery for decades. Reunion Island remains a part of France, and they abolished slavery again in 1848. Mauritius became a part of the British empire, and the people were emancipated in 1835.”
In addition to the account of the uprising in Mauritius, the journal also contained much advice from Le Forestier to Cobbs, his 15-year-old pupil, on subjects like dancing, courting, and marriage. A part of the journal was published in 1904 as “Le Forestier’s Relation: Autobiography and Voyages of François Le Forestier (1749-1819), a Refugee from Mauritius and a Teacher in New England.”
“A lot of footnotes about the important merchant families mentioned in the memoir are included in the publication, but a large portion of the memoir is left out,” Marvin said. “Either the translator did not see the interest in translating all the text, or he found some of it too risqué to publish. At this point, there are more questions than answers on why large portions do not appear in print.”
Marvin will give a lecture on his fellowship research on Feb. 27 at the Boston Athenaeum. Following that, he plans to include a chapter about this topic in an upcoming book he is writing about the history of France’s Indian Ocean colonies.